Aspiration, poverty & art

I haven’t blogged for a while but a couple of things recently made me start thinking about this all over again. One was the article by Dawn Foster on the ‘poverty mindset’ ( ) providing rather harder evidence than my gut reaction posted as ‘Hard Times‘ back in November last year. The other was conversations last week, one at What Next? Southwark’s ‘Election Reflection – Feast or Famine for Arts, Culture and Heritage’ and another at Devoted & Disgruntled’s open space about socially engaged arts. Hanging over all of this, like a dark cloud full of sleet, is the continuing demonization of the poor by the Conservative government and sections of the UK media.

At the end of the Open Space on Tuesday I found myself offering two things in the closing circle:
To set up a crowdmap to map socially engaged practice (projects, practitioners, organisations) – I’ve done this and if you are working in this area please ‘submit a report’ and map yourself on:

The other was the rather basic statement ‘it’s OK to be poor‘.

Why would I say such a thing?

In both the Open Space and at the Election Reflection there had been challenges to the idea that artists/arts practitioners should be funded to make a living out of their work. There were suggestions about the need for them to not rely solely upon the Arts Council but to find alternative ways of making it ‘work’ whether through collaboration, fundraising or increased commercialisation. There were also voices (sometimes the same ones) saying that artists needed to be freer to make their work without having to pre-justify it – or justify it at all. There were also artists who were making work that required a transaction with their audiences (in both cases requiring stories or conversations) rather than money – and that to commercialise that would effectively destroy the intention of the work, but for them to carry out the work required funding so that they could ‘get by’ (ie pay for accommodation and food).

In talking about socially engaged practice and trying to find a definition, we quickly ruled out any kind of amateur arts. I queried this and this is a difficult area for me – on the one hand arts that are carried out for no financial gain by the participants are a large and vibrant part of the UK’s cultural life – around 11m people are estimated to be involved. For example there are more than 2,500 amateur theatrical groups putting on around 30,000 plays a year. I don’t know if anyone is counting the other things – like painting clubs, craft groups, choirs and so on? I imagine they also run into thousands. These groups are defined by being open to anyone but they are not exclusive to the purely ‘amateur’ – my experience is that many ‘amateur’ theatre groups contain a good proportion of professionally trained actors, and backstage crew (costume makers, set dressers, etc). Painting clubs also often have a mix of professional and amateur artists and a range of people in between who sell work but might not have had professional training. Looked at from the ‘amateur’ side the difference is fuzzy and moves along a sliding scale. Looked at from the ‘professional’ side it is a sharp distinction. Why? Because the professional feels the need to protect their position – they DO want to make a living from the arts – they don’t want to ‘give it away for free’ and they have been professionally trained and they have worked to develop their practice and put a lot of themselves into that work – probably making significant financial investment either through sacrifice or actually putting in savings, legacies, selling their car and so on. There are also practical considerations – the scope and ambition of professional art can not always be replicated on an amateur scale – whilst an amateur theatrical production of – say – Shakespeare might be every bit as artistically adventurous, well designed and well acted as a professional one – it isn’t impossible and I’ve seen them – the nature of the way they are put together is only possible on a very short term time scale – the average run being 3 or 4 nights – at most a week – beyond that and the local and community audience has been exhausted and ticket sales would diminish to a point where they were unviable. The actors and backstage crew all have day jobs, many take time off during ‘show week’ but could not do that indefinitely – they certainly couldn’t take a show on tour. Many of them do not want a professional career in the arts – many of those professionally trained have given it up because the life style or the way in which the professional world works did not suit them – thus voluntary arts are not a competitor for the cultural space taken up by professional work and that sharp distinction is not necessary.

I find myself constantly having to justify my position as someone who seeks both professional work as an an actress and director and who seeks to sell my work commercially as an artist and writer, and yet also embraces working with amateur groups and non-artists – not as a parachuted in ‘professional guide/leader/collaborator’ but simply as one of them as a person who enquires into what it is to do that ‘thing’ and who is interested in the different ways that that ‘thing’ is done – the hierarchies, the etiquettes, the tribal requirements that differentiate the professional and amateur worlds. I’m interested because I don’t believe in the status quo and doing things the way they have been done forever but finding out new ways of doing things – by ‘doing things’ I mean the processes, the starting points, the working methods, the interactions – rather than the end products or productions. So why do I persist – why not just throw my lot in with the ‘professionals’ and pretend I’ve never had anything to do with anything ‘amateur’? Well apart from being dishonest I think that working in both these ‘places’ sliding up and down that scale, crossing that divide (depending on where you are coming from) enhances me as a creative person, provides me with more inspiration, more drive to get things done and ensures that what I do stays rooted in the real.

Which leads me to the next thing… aspiration. A couple of young people I have met recently who have engaged in these various debates have been challenged, both rudely and more kindly, on their aspiration to make a living in the arts – and the arts alone. I do want to live in a world where that is possible, but this isn’t it right now. That doesn’t mean that artists should give up that aspiration, but they should make it one about changing the society we live in so that it becomes a place where that is possible. I also question what that ‘making a living’ aspiration actually includes? Most of the young people I encounter now have been born and brought up in a society that embraces the capitalist reality; they have been effectively brainwashed into believing that you have to own your own home, that you have to have money to get married and have a baby, that you ought to be able to afford to go somewhere nice on your holidays, and so on and on. That to not have or want these things is to have failed. Even though they accept that these things are not immediately within their grasp as young artists starting out, they still aspire to them as being part of what defines their success – not just as people but as artists. I think this is probably quite alien to many older artists – the 60s and 70s (and a bit of the 80s) of squats and communes and people deliberately rejecting capitalism meant that artists could be successful and poor at the same time. There is a sense now that to do something else as well (yes the dreaded ‘day job’) is to somehow make oneself impure, sullied, only partly an artist. I have come to realise that as long as you get the balance right – as long as the ‘day job’ is something you believe in and can make a difference at, but also leaves you enough time and flexibility to do your artistic work – then it is actually a beneficial thing. Beneficial not just economically, giving you that breathing space financially to have fallow periods artistically – breathing time to let things settle, to reflect and consider and research, but also by providing fresh input into your creative life. It takes you out of your art world bubble, roots you firmly in the real world. It has taken me a long time to get to this point!

To accept these things is not to lack aspiration – it is to have aspiration – to make your life work for you – to ground yourself in reality so that you can do the work that will change society so that everyone can have a creative life – even if they don’t choose a creative career. To undertake socially engaged work whilst being socially engaged in your own community. We should not limit our aspirations to just ourselves, our comfort, our short term futures, but have grander aspirations to make the world a better place and also to save it from the destructive effects of climate change. Artists struggle with making a living, but so do many other people, I have a friend who lost her job in the financial crash, retrained as a translator, couldn’t find a job as a translator and is now back in the financial sector, we aren’t the only people making compromises. There is nothing wrong with ambition, with wanting to do the big and the beautiful and having the budget to match that – but we don’t all have to do that and/or we don’t have to do that all the time.

Poverty – I started this by saying ‘it’s OK to be poor’ – and it is and it isn’t. There are children growing up in poverty who don’t have enough to eat, who are wearing poor quality, inadequate clothing, who are living in defective housing and who’s health and ongoing development will be effected by these things. Added to that the stigma of being poor will hold them back in education and that will hold them back in life. This is not OK. What is OK is having somewhere secure to live, budgeting for your food sensibly, not buying stuff all the time, not going abroad on holiday, not having a car and not always knowing where the money is going to come from. It is OK because you can have a life rich in other things, the things you do, creatively – or not creatively – running marathons, working out, volunteering within your local community, and there are plenty of things you can get for free – art galleries, theatre, film, workshops, lectures, etc, etc. It is a perception of poverty not the real thing – yes it means a low income, but it is one that is set within a different context of what being ‘poor’ is. I talk about my lack of money, and write about it, proudly and with no shame – yes sometimes it’s difficult and I think, ‘oh if only I could win the lottery’, but most of the time I’m pretty OK with it. I want to share that – I’m not a slacker or a shirker and most people who are poor aren’t either. I’m standing up for it. There will be many people – thanks to Government and media – who are ashamed of it. If you are poor and happy – let people know – counteract the capitalist myth that aspiration is only about aspiring to own, with a truth that aspiration can be about aspiring to be and aspiring to change.

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1 Response to Aspiration, poverty & art

  1. I agree entirely: the nexus of aspiration/expectation/ambition and the reality of ‘financial survival’ – it is the same in communities the world over. I believe many ‘day jobs’ feed creativity: I am coming from a place where ‘lived reality’ is a reference point and a resource for creative work (CBI Improvisation) – it’s a dialogue worth maintaining. Your blog is very valuable!

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